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Not to fail our children

A decade after the Juvenile Justice and Welfare Act (JJWA) was enacted, it now faces its biggest challenge. Among the priority bills of President Duterte and his allies in Congress is the lowering of the minimum age of criminal responsibility (MACR) from 15 to 9 years old.

The MACR is the lowest age by which a person can be charged in court and be jailed. Several bills filed in the House of Representatives to lower the MACR argue that children are “getting bolder and braver” and are being used by syndicates in committing crimes. This reasoning overlooks the fact that in the JJWA, children in conflict with the law (CICL) do not go scot-free, but are held responsible according to their age and developmental capacities. Children below 15 years who commit crimes are not charged in court, but they must undergo intervention programs and are required to pay damages to their victims. The JJWA provides a separate justice system for children, acknowledging their different physical, social, and psychological capacities from those of adults.

If our government is serious about stopping children from committing crimes, it must pursue the full implementation of the JJWA instead of lowering the MACR. Full implementation of the JJWA requires having prevention, intervention, diversion, and rehabilitation programs and child-friendly institutions. This further requires the commitment of competent duty-bearers as well as sufficient funds for implementing the law.

The 2014 independent evaluation of Bahay Pag-asa (BPAs) and regional rehabilitation centers for youth (RRCYs) by Unicef identified factors that negatively and significantly affect the rehabilitation and reintegration of CICL. Two of these are the insufficient capacity of juvenile justice actors (i.e., social workers, police, etc.), and the weak commitment of local government units (LGUs) in implementing programs for CICL.

The insufficient capacity of juvenile justice actors is due to a lack of knowledge of programs that can be done in the areas of prevention, intervention, and diversion. This leads to “erroneous or limited application of the programs.” Among LGUs, it was observed that the lack of training “leads to misunderstandings, even resistance” on the part of implementers. In our training sessions with the Barangay Councils for the Protection of Children, members admitted to lacking not just knowledge of the law but also skills in handling CICL cases. Intervention—a program to address issues that cause the child to commit an offense—is often neglected. Intervention is an individualized treatment program that may include counseling, education and skills training, medical attention, and participation in community or school activities.

The weak commitment of LGUs in implementing programs for CICL is also due to limited financial resources. The 2014 evaluation by Unicef elaborated that limited financial resources is evident in the lack of BPAs in most regions. The law mandates provinces and highly urbanized cities to have BPAs—24-hour child-caring institutions for CICL above 15 and below 18 awaiting court disposition and CICL above 12 and below 15 who committed serious and repeat offenses. Data from the Juvenile Justice and Welfare Council show that out of 114 expected BPAs, only 35 are operational. Generally, BPAs perform more poorly compared to RRCYs in providing the basic needs of children because the latter receive stable funding from the national government. This is also evident in the 2016 study by the Philippine Legislators’ Committee on Population and Development and Unicef where results show that LGUs with minimal financial resources and personnel with low individual capacities are likely to have little awareness of child protection laws, including JJWA.

Instead of lowering the MACR, legislators should strengthen the full implementation of JJWA to prevent children from offending and reoffending. Children should not suffer because of what our institutions have failed to do.

First published in the Philippine Daily Inquirer.